Improvising Technology: Virtuosity, Machines, and Interagency [Jeff Kaiser]

The paper I will present is part of a larger ethnographic examination of contemporary musicians who improvise with new, repurposed and reinvented electronic technologies, including guitarist Nels Cline, turntablist Maria Chavez, trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith and Robert Henke, one of the original authors of the immensely popular software package Ableton Live, among others. In the larger work, I examine changing notions of agency, instruments and virtuosity in electro-acoustic improvised music, and how the interviewees construct what is valuable and desirable in this emergent practice. In addition to documenting how these creative individuals configure technologies for their own purposes, I also highlight how technologies can configure musicians and musical communities by affording specific ways of creating aesthetic and social value. Musical cultures and communities across time and place are frequently differentiated by geography, by the instruments used, by notions of style or repertoire, and by musical function and venues, among other things. In electroacoustic improvised music (EIM), many of these differentiating elements are blurred, as the music is transnational in emergence and practice, instruments are frequently idiosyncratic, and improvisation arguably de-centers repertoire (“arguably” because non-idiomatic and other forms of improvisation can be viewed as a style, or even possibly as a repertoire of musical gestures). Because of this blurring, the EIM community offers a unique window into how musicians conceptualize their practice and relationship with music technology. For more information, please visit his personal website at